Individualistic History

Reilly Jones (
Sun, 16 Mar 1997 05:54:30 -0500

The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, mentioned recently here by
Damien Broderick, has an essay entitled "The Real Stuff of History" in "The
New Criterion" March 1997. It is a tonic to see someone champion truth in
history, the fact that only one thing happens at once, regardless of how
many perspectives there are; and champion the incalculable role of the
individual in shaping history, in direct opposition to academic historians'
vogue of attributing history to quasi-deterministic forces out of the
control of individuals. He is an important voice in the academic
wilderness providing reasoned ammo against the pervasive use of the word
"inevitable" when making prognostications of how the future will unfold.

When it comes to the recent rise of quasi-determinism, which was not
"inevitable," the French, as usual, come in for some heavy blame. This
rise was not due to some mysterious historical force like class struggle,
or geography, or climate, or genetic factors, or memetic transmission laws,
but due to individuals, who can be named and held responsible for the
messes their ideas have made of our contemporary world.

Windschuttle begins with Fernand Braudel's conceiving of his famous book
"The Mediterranean" (1949) while being held in a German prisoner of war

"For the Frenchmen of his generation, this event, coupled with the German
occupation of Paris without a shot being fired, plus the subsequent
collaboration of France with the Nazi regime, was a source of humiliation
and anguish. The concept that most assisted Braudel to distance himself
from these events was that of the 'longue durée,' the structuralist view of
history. Over the course of the longue durée, what did a transient event
like the fall of France matter?"

It is interesting to note the French response to cultural humiliation at
the hands of the Germans was to deemphasize the role of the individual in
history, essentially the socialistic response. When the Germans, on the
other hand, responded to cultural humiliation at the hands of the French
during and after the Sun King's reign, they glorified the individual,
initiating the powerful Romantic movement that still captivated Ayn Rand
many years later. Back to Windschuttle:

"In the wake of the war, [English] historians were keen to [modernize
and] bury the last vestiges of the Victorian emphasis on the heroic
individual, especially the chauvinist accounts of imperial heroes like
Clive of India or Gordon of Khartoum that had dominated school textbooks as
late as the 1930s.... Modernization also meant taking on board the work of
the fast-growing field of economic history which had found that politics,
especially in democratic societies, was more a matter of economic
management than had previously been appreciated. Up to the 1960s,
anthropology and sociology were still intellectually respectable and some
historians felt their own work should be more integrated with these and
other social sciences. Braudel showed them how all these aims could be
pursued. One of Braudel's most enthusiastic fan clubs was formed by the
generation of Marxists who came to prominence in the 1960s, especially in

No surprise to see English Marxists fall in with quasi-deterministic French
socialists, they're still at it. Note that Windschuttle correctly points
out that anthropology and sociology have long lost their intellectual
respectability. The notion of "economic management" being important in the
history of democratic societies was taken to the extreme in "The Sovereign
Individual" (1997) by Rees-Mogg & Davidson. I guess these fads have to
reach reductio ad absurdum before self-correction can occur.

"The academic Left of the 1960s... preferred Braudel's insistence on the
irrelevance of individual action. To [Louis] Althusser, individual men and
women have no part in shaping their world. They are merely the bearers of
roles that are defined for them by the 'social formation,' little more than
robots programmed by the prevailing capitalist ideology. 'Men do not make
history,' [Braudel] wrote in the final passage of "The Identity of France",
'rather it is history above all that makes men and absolves them of blame.'

Well, isn't that special? No wonder O.J. can bump his wife off, and the
Menendez brothers can bump their parents off with impunity, heck, they're
just subject to historical or social forces, no blame can stick. The
connection is crystal clear.

"In the wake of the failure of the attempted student revolutionary
movement of 1968, and the attendant recall of Charles de Gaulle and
election of Richard Nixon, this kind of historical determinism became a
comfort blanket for the academic Left. There was no longer any need for a
radical to be politically active since activism could make no difference to
the great determining structures. All that remained was to study,
theorize, and debate the nature of the structures themselves. This was an
agenda perfectly suited to the academic world of seminars, conferences,
cafes, and bars, and to the careers, tenure, and promotions that have
focused their minds ever since. By the 1980s, the tenured radicals had
dropped Marx and Althusser... but retained their structuralist baggage.
Many looked to alternative gurus, notably the former French Marxists Jean
Baudrillard and Jean François Lyotard, who preached postmodernism..."

Truth hurts, and Windschuttle's account here of how our fine educational
system ended up in its current conceptual sewer is very painful. My tax
dollars are going to universities which are bent on destroying the very
possibility of successfully launching extropic cultures. Grrr...

Then Windschuttle talks about the writing of history itself, and why recent
historians have taken to simply writing fictional stories embedded with
thinly veiled political ideologies, instead of trying to get their facts
straight and placing us within the individuals living during a given
historical time in a given culture.

"The Dutch historian Peter Geyl emerged in the postwar academic world as
one of the most widely read commentators on the discipline. In particular,
his books "Napoleon: For and Against" (1949) and "Debates with Historians"
(1955) were influential in establishing in the postwar mind the notion that
there could be no final truths in history. In 1961, Geyl's book on
Napoleon was favorably acknowledged by the English historian E.H. Carr,
author of "What is History?", one of the most influential commentaries on
history writing ever published. It was a required text in virtually every
course on historical method in the English-speaking academic world for the
next twenty years. Carr repeats Geyl's argument that history is 'an
unending dialogue between the present and the past.' Different ages take
different perspectives. The best we can hope for is a continuous debate.
While he says that historians should base their writing on facts, the real
stuff of history is not truth but interpretation. Carr was the author of a
massive ten-volume study of the foundation of the USSR between 1917 and
1929 but, until his death in 1982, had remained a closet Marxist."

The massive Soviet penetration of our history departments, especially in
the departments that churned out history teachers by the bushel, should
come as no surprise to those who remember the communist axiom that those
who would shape the future must control the past. It is also obvious why
Nietzsche, who wrote from the right, was picked up and sanitized by the
left who have never had a lick of respect for the truth. Nietzsche asked
for this misbegotten adoption, which would've repulsed him, by being too
clever by a half in pushing Western civilization further into nihilism,
faster, in order for it to discover an antidote to nihilism quickly, by
emphasizing interpretation over truth himself. "Oh, the tangled webs we

But when truth is thrown out the door, as Gregory Houston recently did
here, then lies and propaganda walk in, such as denying the Holocaust ever
took place.

"One of the consequences of the relativist position is that it cedes some
degree of credibility to anyone with an even vaguely coherent perspective,
no matter how vile it might be. The consequence of the position that there
can be no absolute truths is that there can be no absolute falsehoods
either, so refutation ('prove the falsehood of') is beyond reach."

All too true, but there is a proper method of history, if the notion of
truth is not thrown out.

"For every corroboration, there increases in geometric proportion the
probability that this event actually occurred. Since we live in a finite
world, there comes a point where it is impossible for any scenario to exist
in which the Holocaust did not occur. Every fact can itself be a
conclusion and every conclusion can itself be a fact in someone else's

Windschuttle then dares to skewer the whole premise of multiculturalism,
the notion that all cultures deserve equal consideration. We wouldn't even
be examining the history of other cultures if it weren't for Western
civilization's interest in them. Other cultures didn't record their own
history, they saw no reason to.

"History is an invention of Western culture, dating from ancient Greece
in the fifth century B.C., and since then its practice has been confined
almost entirely to the West. Yet for all this time, there have been two
traditions of history contesting the field. One derives from the first
genuine historian, Thucydides. In the "Oxford Illustrated History of
Christianity" (1990), John McManners has argued that in the implications of
Christian belief there are encouragements to writing history in an austere,
uncommitted fashion, with wide cultural concern: 'Firstly, there was the
conviction that everything men do or think matters intensely and eternally,
as coming under the judgment of God; secondly, there was the concept of a
creator entirely distinct from his creation, ruling the universe by general
laws, whose ways are inscrutable, and who gives men the gift of freedom.
Hence the obligation to treat seriously and with reverence all men and the
social orders they build, to study everything, to explain without
partisanship, insisting on the logical coherence of all things.' From the
fall of Rome to the Renaissance, the idea of history was kept alive in the
industry of those many Christian monks whose chronicles of church and state
were imbued with ideals of this kind."

Other cultures did not have such ideals, did not take the individual
seriously. The notion of the importance of the individual was a Western

"Christianity, however, bore an additional dimension that in the last two
centuries has produced a second tradition within history. Christianity has
held that, while the achievements of man are due to his own will and
intellect, they are also beholden to something other than himself, the
realizing of God's purposes for man. From this perspective, men are the
vehicles through which history occurs but history has a direction and a
purpose decided by a force beyond man. This Christian concept of history
also contained the idea of fulfillment. It is this second Christian
tradition that has formed the basis of those theories of history that
conjure up great impersonal forces and undercurrents which purportedly
determine the destiny of mankind."

This split within Christianity between the two traditions is mirrored in
the split between ascetic Christianity, essentially entropic in nature, and
joyous Christianity, essentially extropic in nature. The tension between
the rival traditions within Western civilization helped forge the pluralism
and ideal of toleration that underpins notions of liberty, freedom and
capitalism, and is a unique reason why none of those notions arose anywhere
else on earth.

Windschuttle sums up by emphasizing the individual's role in history, an
extropic formulation:

"Rather than human affairs being impelled by great impersonal forces,
political history reveals our world to be made by men and, instead of being
'absolved of blame,' men are responsible for the consequences of their

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